The Bigger Problem within Oxfam’s Sex Scandal
Who is monitoring the charities that the public perceives as moral leaders?
Oxfam, one of the UK’s largest and best known charities, is currently entangled in a scandal following revelations that senior staff members engaged in sexual misconduct during the 2010 Haiti earthquake recovery effort and had hired prostitutes while working in Chad in 2006. The report revealed that aid workers held sex parties, turning a villa rented by Oxfam into a makeshift brothel, with senior officers allegedly attempting to cover up the behavior.
Roland van Hauwermeiren, the man at the heart of the scandal, was head of operations in both Chad and then Haiti, resigning from that last position in 2011 following an internal investigation by Oxfam. Since the story broke, four staff members have been fired, and three others have resigned, including Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, who was the organization’s program director at the time of the Haiti earthquake.
While alarming that Oxfam, or any NGO for that matter, would cover up such distressing acts, what is of equal concern is that van Hauwermeiren, who admitted to the claims of his involvement in the Haiti scandal while disputing the exact allegations against him, had, in 2004, left his position with the Merlin charity in Liberia amid reports of using prostitutes. The question of why he was allowed to pursue another job working with vulnerable populations is confounding: How did an aid worker whose career objective is to provide support for people living in poverty get the opportunity to exploit them on more than one occasion? The answer lies within the broken system of the global aid industry and leads to questions of who is monitoring the charities that the public tends to perceive as moral leaders.
NGOs are built around public trust. It is vital to their missions to prove they are using donated funds appropriately, reporting to charity watchdogs annually and showing full transparency in their financial statements. But it seems as though those same standards may not be required when it comes to employees’ conduct while on the job. Oxfam aid workers not only took advantage of their positions of power while working in Haiti, but their abhorrent actions have not been met by any punitive measures. In its most basic, they got away with exploiting the same people they set out to help.
Haiti and its people have faced exploitation for hundreds of years. Once one of the richest nations under French rule, France refused to recognize the nation’s independence following the Haitian Revolution of 1804. It finally did so in 1825, and then only under the condition that the Haitian government agrees to pay compensation in the amount of roughly 150 million golden francs — 10 times Haiti’s annual revenue then, or about $17 billion in today’s money — to French landowners for the loss of plantations and slaves.
At the same time, the United States government placed an embargo against the island, refusing to acknowledge the newly independent nation, even though up until that point the US had been selling more goods to Haiti than any other country in Latin America. In 1915, fearful that a politically unstable Haiti would not be able to repay its debts, the US occupied the island, remaining for 20 years.
In the 1950s, Haiti came under the dictatorial rule of by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, whose son, Jean-Claude, would remain in power until 1986. By this point the country had been be plagued by decades of political corruption, its land stripped of natural resources and tens of thousands of citizens thought to oppose the government had been killed. By the time the January 2010 earthquake hit, Haiti was already relying heavily on foreign aid, which accounted for 30-40% of its government’s budget.
Haitians aren’t the only ones being exploited by foreign aid workers, and Oxfam is not the only organization that has confirmed that staff members have engaged in sexual misconduct in recent years either. Save the Children, the British Red Cross, Christian Aid and the UN have all published reports of both inappropriate and criminal sexual behavior by staff.
More than ever, now is the time to change how the global aid system is monitored and how inappropriate behavior is handled. If something is not done now, beyond being a public-relations nightmare, Oxfam and other big NGOs are at risk of losing out on funding. With something this explosive, everyone loses. Stories such as these reinforce negative stereotypes of the countries where the disgraceful behavior took place, it harms individuals who were taken advantage of and it shakes the public’s faith in the non-profit sector.
Scandals such as these do more than just give a few NGOs a bad reputation: They put a mark on all of them. The big players at the top have the means to bounce back from bad publicity, but smaller charities don’t have that luxury. If faith in aid organizations as a whole is undermined, and enough supporters back away from a cause, then smaller charities risk folding completely. If there aren’t changes in accountability within the global aid system, in the end those of us who work to deliver humanitarian assistance with ethical and moral standards risk losing our ability to do so, which only hurts those we set out to help in the first place.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.